Kites, Caves, Karaoke, Cops, Cakes, and Other Quests

A Travel Story By Ron Despojado

I always tell people that I feel very fortunate to travel to many parts of the world and fly kites.

My recent trip to Asia originally began about 5 years ago.  I would travel to the Philippines to visit family.  By coincidence there was the Philippine Hot Air Balloon Fiesta during the time I was there.  The fiesta included a small demonstration of kites.  I contacted the President of the Kite Association of Philippines, Orlando Ongkingco, and he arranged it so I could do a performance at the fiesta, as well as be a guest of their organization.  The next year I again traveled to the Philippines and was invited to the Pasir Gudang International kite Festival in Pasur Gudang, Malaysia.  Pasur Gudang traditionally was the weekend after the Philippine Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.  This was an annual occasion for me the past four years

Unfortunately this year the Malaysian event coincided with the Philippine event, so I had to make a tough choice.  To make the decision even harder, I received an invitation to the Satun International Kite Festival in Thailand that was planned the following weekend.  The offer preferred that I had to accept BOTH Pasur Gudang AND Satun since both festivals were being planned in conjunction with each other.  What should I do?  The answer- attend them all, sort of.  I accepted the Pasur Gudang & Satun invitation since I had never been to Thailand, and planned to stop in the Philippines at the start and finish of my trip.

I arrived in the Philippines mid February and met with my kiting friends.  While there I had very limited opportunity to fly any kites.  I met a fellow American kiter- Tom Bush whom I had only connected with through Facebook.  Originally from Texas, Tom now spends most of his time in the Philippines.  I only had three days there so I tried to experience as much as I could.  I spent one day at a construction site and gave some consultation with a few issues at the time.  Eventually I had to board an early morning plane to Singapore and Malaysia.  As my plane was taking off, I could see the hot air balloons inflating at daybreak since the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta was at a nearby airport.  It was a little sad to know I would miss that event.

After landing in Singapore then taking a shuttle to Pasur Gudang I finally got to break out my kites.  The event is held at a very large grassy field.  However the numbers of huge inflatable kites quickly take up the real estate.  Invited guests came from mostly Asia, though several were from Europe.  From the USA there was the extremely talented kite maker George Peters, and myself- sort of.  Since my family is originally from the Philippines, and I was born & raised in the USA my country of origin is sometimes interchanged to benefit the numbers of invited countries.  I have been flying a custom Revolution that has the Philippine flag on one side, and the American flag on the other side.  For them to have one invitee potentially represent two countries was a benefit. As mentioned the large inflatable kites take up most of the sky.  Sport kites are small in numbers, but still a visible component.    There is usually an invited sport kite team, this time a dual-line team from China, quadline team from Japan, as well as a few solo flyers.  Quadline mega-flys seem to sprout up on their own as someone starts flying, then another flyer joins right in, and so forth.  Sometimes there is a language barrier, but the flying goes on.

A lot of the enjoyment at kite festivals is the happenings that occur OFF the kite field.  The organizers plan a lot of activities in the evening after dinner for the invitees.  There is always some cultural dancing which eventually members of the audience are pulled onstage to join in.  The dance steps they were doing looked a lot like the Electric Slide, of which I can’t seem to get the hang of.  So as they started do those familiar back-and forth, side-to-side steps I quickly exited the stage.  Of course there was a karaoke machine.  One of my friends from Malaysia was onstage getting ready to sing, and I heard those all too familiar opening guitar chords to one of my favorite songs.  To make-up for my dancing exit, I couldn’t resist joining him onstage and I grabbed a microphone from the announcer.  “On a dark desert highway… cool wind in my hair…warm smell of colitas… rising up through the air….”  I knew all the words, but also knew I can’t sing to save my life, or at least in the right key.  Still, I couldn’t leave since I already walked-off from the dance recital.   And in answer to your question, my day job is just fine, and I’ll stick to kite flying.

The next day was the formal opening ceremonies.  This comes complete with a visit from the Sultan of Johor- THE Sultan!!  For the fourth or fifth time I have been there I was again asked to perform in front of the Sultan.   I again felt very much honored to do so.  The Sultan arrived complete with a motorcade, a parade of young people carrying flags and banners, and a number of bodyguards.  There was ceremonial music, again some cultural dancing, and then the invocation.  All this was going on while I was nervously trying to convince myself that- yes, there IS enough wind to fly in front of everybody, including the Sultan and his family.  I was standing behind all the invited guests frantically and continuously testing the wind.  Soon within the stream of a foreign language I did not understand I hear “Ron Desperado USA”.  My music started and the crowd cleared so the Sultan can see me.  The wind was there!!  Then it quickly wasn’t there.  I am working it on semi-short lines trying to fly with the music without too much running back and forth.  I was backing up and quickly approaching the Sultan’s throne when I looked to my right and thought- “If I do a 360 it will look spectacular…. If I fail at the attempt, I will probably crash my kite into the Sultan or run into one of his bodyguards.”  I took two steps towards attempting my 360, then common sense took over and I decided to keep flying as best I can.  Luckily they faded out my music and I took a bow towards the Sultan, breathing a sigh of relief. The other two performances- the stunt kite teams had just as much trouble but again their music was faded out before completion.  At close of the ceremonies, the Sultan greets a representative from every country and gives a small gift.  I met him once in the past.  He looked at the USA sign I was standing behind, then looked up and saw me.  “You’re American?!” he asked.  “Yes sir” was my reply.  He then said “American Indian?”

Later in the day was the rokkaku challenge.  This was held just a little differently than what I have seen in the past.  As usual the contestants launch their kites and try to knock each other out of the sky.  But in this case there was a remedy to insure everyone gets involved and no one just sits in the corner.  As the battle rages on, a rope encircles the contestants.  Little by little the rope circle gets tighter to where the ones left in battle are shoulder to shoulder and fully entangled in each other’s flying line.  To heighten the intensity they were playing for money in addition to bragging rights.

That evening was the night fly and competition.  The field which held the enormous variety of kites just a few hours earlier was now packed with local spectators.  The competition was to attach lights to your kites and fly them in the evening.  This was a spectacular display.  Single line kites, dual line kites, and quad line kites had a vast array of lights, most with some sequential pattern.  I was asked to be one of the judges.  As I looked at the kites both on the ground and in the sky, I felt it was judging apples vs. oranges vs. mangos.  There was no consistency in any display other than that they were incredibly beautiful.  The kites in the night sky, coupled with the packed field, were an indescribable sight.

The day after the festival I met up with a local retailer named Leong.  He had asked me earlier to give some Rev lessons to him and members of his team, and of course I would.  We met at the same field the festival was at, but this time there was no evidence of a festival ever happening there.  The winds were very light but we kept flying as best we could.  He shot videos and practiced hands-on.  Soon we decided to finish.  He and some of his team and their spouses were speaking to each other in Malay, but I thought nothing of it.  Then Leong turns to me and says “we would like you to come over for dinner, the seafood is very fresh.”  I was very humbled by this and gladly accepted.  We arrived at a teammate’s home, and literally behind his house was a small dock over the bay.  Clams, crabs, and fish were being caught right then and there.  From the bay to the dining table was about 20 minutes.  It was the best meal I have ever eaten in Malaysia!

The next day we arrived in Thailand for the Satun International kite Festival.  A very large majority of the Pasur Gudang foreign guests were invited to this event as well.  As we arrived we saw a dump truck pull up. We were told this dump truck would carry out luggage.  A quick look into the bed of the truck told us the truck must have just left a construction site as there was mud in the back.  The truck rolled down the road a few hundred feet, then literally dumped the excess dirt out as well as being swept before our bags and precious kites were placed in there.  Luckily they brought a tarp which was laid down in the bed before the bags were loaded.

Again, the organizer’s wanted to make sure we as guests enjoyed some off the local sights.  One attraction we were told about was their caves.  We were brought to Pua Pha Phet cave, or sometimes called the Diamond Cave.  A two hour van ride brought us to the base of the cave.  We climbed the mountain for about 20 minutes before reaching the entrance.  All the while images of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ran through my head as we traversed narrow trails with nothing but a sheer drop on one side, trees with exotic lizards, birds, and bugs on them, and tree vines that tickled your neck without warning.  The actual entrance into the cave was very small.  We had to get on our hands and knees and crawl through a small hole, so small that you could not wear a backpack while attempting to enter.  Once inside there were lights strategically placed as well as wooden brides spanning rough or inaccessible areas.  After about an hour we reached the end of the cave.  This was yet another indescribable image.  There was an opening in the high cave ceiling that let in sunlight.  At about where the sun landed in the cave was a small rock formation, either natural or man-made.  At this point someone brought out their small kite indoor single line kite.  He tried to fly it but was just a little erratic.  Then another made an attempt, but again a little too jerky.  I asked to give it a try.  Giving that little kite a slight tug then pull as the line floated out of my grasp was just too much!  I could have played with that kite for hours.  It glided gracefully and responded to my gentle tugs.  This was pure indoor flying- I was flying a kite in a cave!  The section of the cave we were in was bigger than a high school gymnasium, so we could have had an indoor competition there.  I wanted to dance along with that little kite a little more, but soon it was time to go back.   For the approximately two minutes I had with the little kite under my guidance, it was something I will never forget.

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After the cave adventure we were brought to a nice little roadside restaurant.  As with all the meals we were given, very fresh tropical fruits and very fresh seafood.  In fact, they had an aquarium there with sets of tongs right next to it.  After lunch we were offered some white water rafting.  After I looked at the stream, I would have called it “tan” water rafter since the water wasn’t completely clear, and no rapids were visible.  I decided to forego this adventure, but most others enjoyed the event.

The next day we were told of a small island that only appears at low tide, and that we could fly kites there.  It was sometimes called “Miracle Island” because when the water is low it appears as if you’re walking on water.  The island was a 30 minute boat ride away.  There were about 40 or 50 of us wanting to go.  They had two boats that each carried 12 people only.  Therefore they had to each make two trips to get everyone out to the island.  I was on the last boat out.  On the way to Miracle Island we stopped at another very small island with fisherman and small huts.  Many of us brought out kites.  I was eager to go to Miracle Island so I was on the very first boat headed to the island.  About five minutes after we left the fisherman’s island the sky in the distance got very dark.  Within minutes dark skies were upon us, along with brisk winds and rain.  Without any discussion we headed back to the mainland.  In addition to the upcoming stormy weather the sun was going down.  I could see the shoreline in the distance off my right shoulder, but we were not headed directly there.  Then I realized our captain was trying to go with the current.  Twice during our return the engine shut down. We were bouncing up and down at the mercy of the waves all the while the captain was either pumping more gas into the engine or pumping water out of the engine- by hand.  I don’t remember seeing a radio onboard, and there were only a few life preservers.  I doubt there was any Coast Guards were nearby.  We finally made it back to shore and since the tide had gone out, the steps we used to get on the boat are now sitting higher than the boat.  We had to climb up the bow of the boat and be pulled up to the first steps.  As you can imagine, we were so happy to be back on land.  From there we had dinner at another open air restaurant.  Then I thought- it is dark since the sun has gone down.  There were still a couple more boatloads of people needed to be brought back to shore.

The next day was the first day of the festival.  Oh yeah, now I remember why I’m in Thailand- I’m here to fly kites.  The day was very hot, probably in the high 90’s.  However, due to the cold and wet weather from the previous night’s boat adventure I had a sore throat and sounded like Rod Stewart.  Perhaps karaoke again doing Maggie May this evening?  But no matter what the weather or conditions, the kiters put up their kites.  Again colossal colorful inflatables dominated the sky.  In addition there were some very large spinning bols tethered down to heavy construction equipment.  The sport kites were scattered here and there, but the main center stage was allocated for sport kite ballets since that was where the crowd was.  Again I did not understand the language but eventually I heard “Ron Despado USA”.  I flew impromptu which included playing with the crowd.  Then I handed them my CD and flew a ballet performance.  Later in the afternoon I was invited to fly in the dual line mega fly.  I promptly accepted.  I was handed an old school TOTL North Shore Radical and lined up with about 10 other kites.  We took off and simply did a series of follows outlining the infinity symbol.  After a few minutes the leader would land and the next kite would lead the pack.  One by one they dropped off until I was eventually leading.  I took the group through various other patterns that were a little more creative until I was suggested to land, though I didn’t want to.  I landed and the next leader took over.   All during the day we were given fresh fruits to keep us hydrated.  The variety included pineapples, papaya, oranges, bananas, melons, and other tropical selections.  It was almost like pure sugar since these were just taken off the tree.

The next day the weather seemed even hotter, but it doesn’t really matter when the temperature is that high.  We were invited to participate in a parade celebrating the festival.  There were marching bands and dancers sprinklered with a kiter here and there.  After a few blocks in the heat I was wondering how long the parade was going to be.  After a while the parade just dissolved and we were brought back to the flying field.

Eventually the wind died and it was a sad sight seeing a spectrum of colors spread out over the flying field.  It looked like a yard sale of ripstop nylon.  The lack of wind made room for a deluge of rain.  We stayed in the tents and had to create little rivers in the dirt to steer the water away from our kites under the tents.  Later in the evening I was surprised with a small birthday cake and a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”  It was quite a special event.  I had never spent a birthday at a kite festival, nor spent it in a foreign country.  Today I had both!  Again a night fly was held at the kite field, and again it was a surreal experience.  There is something about sitting out on a warm night and listening to music while kites complete with LED lights waver in the night sky, so relaxing.

The final day we saw more of the same.  Though weather was consistently hot and humid, we were always on the field putting our kites up.  Someone once asked me how can I fly kites in such uncomfortable weather.  My reply was “this is what I do, this is why they invited me here.”  My feeling is they think highly enough of me to bring me to their festival, I am going to fulfill their expectations of me.  It’s not an obligation, it’s an honor.

The day came when we had to leave Thailand and head back to our homes.  Most of us left through the Hat Yai Airport in Thailand and later the Changi airport in Singapore.  As we landed in Singapore one by one we all went to separate gates.  Myself, I had a five hour layover, but had dinner with a few local kiters.  My next destination was again the Philippines.  I again met up with Orlando from the Kite Association of the Philippines after landing in Manila.  He mentioned to me he was contacted by one of the television networks for a story on kiting.  He arranged it so that I would be part of the feature.  They set it up so that I flew my Revolution near Manila Bay.  After a few interviews and “B” roll footage I setup to fly.  I launched my kite, did a few quick maneuvers and landed.  Right away a security guard told us we could not fly there because of the potential danger to pedestrians.  First I thought, there were hardly any pedestrians.  My second thought was “Doesn’t he know what I can do with this kite?”  We stopped, but as his back was turned while tending another security issue we hit the sky again, keeping an eye open for the guard.  The last thing I wanted was for him to take away my kite. The show was an entertainment feature on a show similar to “60 Minutes” here in the US.   I boarded a plane that evening and headed back home.

Well I did it.  I traveled to four countries and participated in three kite events.  After 19 days I was ready to sleep in my own bed.  Was I burned-out on traveling and kiting?  I didn’t have time to think about that as I was scheduled to attend Kite Party XI in Huntington Beach the upcoming weekend.

This is what I do.